We've all felt it. The instinctual urge to run, the compelling ability to hide, the debilitating forcefulness to freeze. It's fear – one of the seven universal emotions critical to human survival.
Using fear to your advantage can help you make quick (almost immediate) decisions when undergoing a threat or scary situation, such as getting run over or walking down a dark alley. But working through “non life-threating” fears may require a different lens to understand them – such as understanding phobias are NOT fear.
Read more to find out how to use fear to your advantage.
Fear vs Phobia
Fear exists in our mind, which stems from and resides in a small almond-shaped area of our brain called the amygdala.
However, when we experience fear, we may “feel” it in every part of our body.
During a frightening experience, a signal is sent to the thalamus. The thalamus alerts the amygdala, which releases neurotransmitters into the body as a reaction to fight or run from the perceived threat. This is called the fight or flight response.
While fear is highly uncomfortable, it may not be life-threatening – although it can may feel like it. Fear prepares you to quickly decide what to do next in a seemingly-threatening situation.
But remember this: the next time you may “experience” fear in a non-life threatning, think of it as your body is telling you to make a change – to reach outside your comfort zone and challenge your phobia. It's the phobia you want to target.
To challenge your phobias, you'll need to look at the perceived threat as an opportunity rather than something to run from.
When you use fear to push you forward, you're no longer held back by the emotion, which is precisely how to use fear to your advantage.
Phobias are commonly referred to as “fear of X”. Replace X with clowns, heights, small spaces, or specific objects.
- Fear is a reaction to a threat
- Phobia is when a specific object or thing interferes with your quality of life.
Let's take a look at some common “fears” (or phobias) that get commonly referred to as “Fear of…”:
Example “Fear of […]”
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is when you disallow yourself to engage in situations where you may be rejected. The root of your fear may be low self-esteem issues, resulting in coping strategies such as people-pleasing and distancing behaviors.
To overcome low self-esteem issues, you can try:
- Individual therapy
- Positive affirmations towards yourself
- Support groups with like-minded people.
Scenarios where fear of rejection may become triggered arise in situations like public speaking, social interactions, interviewing, or the first days of work or school.
Fear of Failure
The fear of failure closely resembles negative feelings about oneself, contributing to perfectionism, low self-confidence, and self-sabotage. Often, you'll feel shame, embarrassment, and guilt if you have failed, which drives you to give up and become hard on yourself.
Scenarios where fear of failure is triggered may arise in situations like starting or finishing a project or applying for a new job or university.
The first step to taking advantage of your fear of failing is to accept that you are not perfect and understand that everyone fails. Look at failure as an opportunity to grow through learning.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
Again, FOMO (fear of missing out) resembles a close conflict with one's self-esteem. FOMO is where you envy or become jealous of someone else's life that you read from social media and internet groups. You feel a deep irrational fear that you're missing out on life compared to others.
Possibilities where FOMO might exist are when you're scrolling social media and stems from the belief that you're going to miss out on a conversation or miss a new TV premiere or get uninvited to a special event.
FOMO results in poor sleep quality driven by increased screen time and poor choices.
Using Fears & Phobias to Your Advantage
It's hard to imagine fear as just a simple emotion since fear is the one emotion that gives us the most physical symptoms. When our fear response is triggered, we may feel involuntary shakiness, a fast or irregular heart rate, and the strong urge to deactivate the fear response through running, fighting, or hiding.
Overcoming fear and anxiety is a complex process.
Here's a brief primer on how to use fear to your advantage in three steps:
Acceptance and Understanding
“I'm Afraid” = Feeling an Emotion
Learning to accept that fears are just overwhelming emotions is the first step in how to use fear to your advantage.
Emotions triggered from fears contribute your mind into believing (“thinking”) that you cannot handle a perceived threat. This may be from limiting beliefs.
- Accept that our thoughts drive behaviors and actions.
- Acknowledge that feelings and emotions will impact our way of thinking, for better or worse.
- Understand that limiting thoughts and limiting beliefs may lead to irrational fears.
Recognize When You “Feel” Fear
When you feel fear or suffering from a phobia kicking in, it can range from a subtle response, like nervousness, to the feeling of complete terror.
Regardless of the level of fear you feel, your first instincts will be to run, fight, or hide, either avoiding the fear or denying that it's there.
If you pick the avoidance path, denial may be beginning to creep in.
To get through the avoidance and denial trap, you must build self-awareness to identify your cues and their corresponding triggers.
Become curious about what the fear is “telling you” (what are you feeling?)
- Take note of your surrounding environment
- Where are you?
- Who are you with (or are you alone)?
- What specific object or “thing” is making you “feel” uncomfortable
- Recognize your trigger and take a moment to address it.
- What was the cue?
- What event(s) happened right before the moment you realized you were “triggered”
- Keep these notes as a reminder to follow up and work on reducing your moments of “getting triggered”.
Reaffirm Commitment to Using Fear as Fuel to Success
Often, people become overwhelmed by fears and phobias because they let it control them. For example, someone with a phobia defined as “agoraphobia” will not leave their house due to social anxiety, which may be due to a lack of self-confidence. It might seem as a life-long affliction without hope of recovery.
However, when you
- become aware
- recognize, accept, and lastly,
- continuously reaffirm your commitment to addressing your fears
You will be using your fear as fuel and converting your phobias into motivational fire for success.
Recapping how to use fear to your advantage, here are some tips to help you stay on track:
- Know that thoughts are fueled from emotions, as are our “feelings”.
- Feelings are rarely facts.
- Feeling afraid of a non-life threatening fear can be reversed.
- Become curious about the fear itself.
- What is it telling you?
- How did it start?
- Do not avoid scenarios where you'll be afraid – take the fear in small doses to overcome it.
- Do not be too hard on yourself. Be patient and understanding so that you can find acceptance.
- Fear exists in your mind first. Allowing limiting beliefs to control your mindset will allow fear to control you.